A Conversation with Mary Abbott Children's House
April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and we're collaborating with Mary Abbott Children's House, a Norman organization dedicated to advocating for children, preventing abuse, and working towards hope and healing. At Equity, we believe everyone should have the necessary tools to thrive both mentally and physically, and this starts with childhood safety. To raise awareness and funds for this important issue, we've brewed a beer with MACH called Prevention is Our Jam! Join us Friday, April 8th for the release of this beer and learn how you can get involved in the fight to prevent child abuse.
Read on to learn more about Mary Abbott Children's House and the amazing work they do in our community!
The Mary Abbott Children's House Building in Norman, OK.
Can you give a brief background on the Abbott House organization and how you got started with this work?
Mary Abbott Children's House is a safe place for children to share their story after an experience of abuse or neglect. Children talk about their experience in a child-friendly, victim-centered environment to a specially-trained forensic interviewer. They also receive medical care and victim services during their visit to Abbott House. We work closely with law enforcement, child welfare, and mental health professionals so together we can help children move forward and heal.
Last year 730 children visited Abbott House for a forensic interview, and we estimate we will have 1000 in 2022. We have a full time staff of 11, which includes direct services staff and administrative staff.
What areas of Oklahoma do you serve and what services to you provide to the people there?
Abbott House is a nationally-accredited child advocacy center, serving Cleveland, McClain and Garvin counties. Whenever a substantiated case of abuse or neglect is opened with law enforcement or DHS (often both working together), one of those agencies contacts Abbott House to set up a forensic interview, ideally within a few days of the report. While they're at Abbott House, they will also receive medical care and victim support services to make sure they have all the resources they need to move forward. We also educate all over the state with our Safety In Action and ALRT programs.
You focus heavily on prevention, which is amazing. What are some of the ways you do that work and how does it differ from non-preventative care? Do you do both?
Absolutely! Reporting abuse when you suspect it is very important, and ideally we want a world where child abuse doesn't even happen. One of our most exciting new programs is ALRT, which includes in-person education in schools to teach kids and teens how to keep themselves safe online. ALRT also includes a movie night outreach event and a public service campaign to reach parents so they understand just how much of a problem online child exploitation really is. For example, did you know Oklahoma ranks 4th in the nation for child trafficking? Also, 1 in 5 teenage girls said they would meet someone in person that they had only met online. And shockingly, the most commonly searched word for kids under the age of seven (yes, seven!) is "porn." It's a huge issue, and we need to make sure kids know how to keep themselves safe online.
Is there anything people who don't specialize in this work can do in their communities to help preventative efforts?
Sadly, abuse is a reality in our community, especially in central Oklahoma. Recognizing the signs of abuse are necessary, and it's especially important to know that in Oklahoma, anyone over the age of 18 is a mandated reporter. That means, by law, even suspicion of abuse or neglect needs to be reported to the DHS hotline immediately. It's also important to know how to respond if a child lets you know they have been abused (what we call a disclosure): remain neutral and nonjudgmental, thank the child for telling you, don't ask anything beyond the very most basic facts so you can make a report. You don't want to re-traumatize the child by making them have to repeat their story over and over, and you don't want to possibly cause any issues with the investigation. The most important thing is that a child is believed when they disclose. The biggest factor in a child being able to move on toward a happy, healthy future is having a parent or caregiver who believes them.
As for prevention, we have a great opportunity coming up on April 20 - a Lunch and Learn called Keeping Your Kids Safe. This event is for caregivers - parents, teachers, church leaders, etc. Those who attend will learn how to recognize signs of child abuse, respond to a child’s disclosure of abuse, spot a potential child predator and report abuse. Our partners with Bethesda will present their “Stop, Go, Tell” program to any children who attend with a parent or caregiver. That event is at The Well, 210 James Garner Avenue at 10:45 am. There is no cost for the event, but please RSVP to Ronni at email@example.com.
Since you work closely with local law enforcement, how do you ensure that children of color are safe from discrimination, harassment, and racial prejudice that they may face systemically?
It is the policy of Mary Abbott Children's House that children and families from all backgrounds feel welcomed and respected by staff, Multidisciplinary Team members, and the Board of Directors, regardless of their personal backgrounds or beliefs.
Children and families of all backgrounds are welcomed, valued and respected at MACH. Mary Abbott Children’s House personnel and Multidisciplinary Team members attempt to understand the child’s world-view and adapt practices as needed and as appropriate. Our intention is to learn from the families we serve about their personal culture, instead of allowing ourselves to be influenced by what we think we know about their culture. MACH provides services to a diverse population regardless of age, race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, physical or mental disabilities, socio-economic status or any other cultural descriptors.
The work environment at Mary Abbott Children's House encourages the highest levels of integrity from its employees and other members of the Multidisciplinary Team. MACH strives to create an environment where both employees and Multidisciplinary Team members are valued as individuals working together toward the same goal.
Clients, Mary Abbott Children's House employees, Multidisciplinary Team members, members of the Board of Directors and everyone else MACH serves are treated with respect and fairness. Opportunities for MACH team members to develop their full potential as individuals is encouraged and celebrated. Members of the Mary Abbott Children's House team promote awareness of cultural diversity and demonstrate sensitivity to these issues in all interactions with others.
You emphasize storytelling as a path to education and healing for these children and their families. There is surely stigma surrounding these conversations, so how does the Mary Abbott House combat this, and how can that be used as a model to de-stigmatize these conversations in our community at large?
We like to say, "Your voice has power," because sharing their story in the right environment helps put children on the path to healing and a brighter future. At Abbott House, we have a hallway that every child walks through on their way to the room where they'll have their forensic interview. That hallway is completely filled with handprints of kids who also told their story. When kids walk down that hallway, they always ask about it. When they find out that all those handprints belong to kids just like them, they feel brave and empowered to talk about their own experience.
Abbott House, of course, never publicly shares stories of children with any identifying details. Until they are an adult, we don't want them to make a decision to share a story publicly that they might later regret, because sadly, it is a topic that has a stigma attached to it. However, since Abbott House is a completely neutral place where kids can tell their stories without judgement, that helps them understand that what happened to them isn't their fault and it isn't something they should feel ashamed of.
Has the emergence of the internet and social media changed how you operate in any way since children are easily exposed to abuse online?
Yes, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, kids are spending an unprecedented amount of time online, often with less supervision. In fact, kids and teens now average up to 10 hours online per day. Our ALRT program was started in response to this. Kids desperately need the tools to keep themselves safe online. Often when we think of trafficking, we think of white vans and chloroform, but less than 10% of trafficking cases involve kidnapping. It happens online, often in our own homes. At Abbott House, we understand that as adults, we cannot totally control or eliminate the huge part of modern life that happens online, even for our own kids - this is their world, so we need to make sure they know how to keep themselves safe.
How can people get involved in your organization?
We would love for people to visit our website or social media for more information, or call me and I'll happily give you a tour of the house! For anyone who is interested in volunteering, we love when large groups give a Saturday to do yard work or deep cleaning, and we always need people who are looking for a place to volunteer on an on-going basis if they might like to spend time with kids who visit. Of course, we always love financial donations, and throughout April, anyone can "sponsor" a pinwheel for $20 with our Pinwheels for Prevention program. We will have 1000 pinwheels in the yard at Abbott House throughout April in honor of the estimated 1000 children who will have a forensic interview at Abbott House in 2022. More information is at abbott-house.org/pinwheels. And, of course, we hope that everyone will stop by for a "Prevention Is Our Jam" ale at Equity Brewing!
And, how can people request your services?
Children are referred to us for forensic interviews by either DHS or law enforcement. If anyone would like educational services for their school or organization, we would love to set that up for you! More information is available here about the different education programs we offer.